Harvest Century September 22nd

Priming the cowbell: Cyclocross de-mystified

Posted by on September 28th, 2011 at 5:06 pm

Welcome to ‘cross.
(Photo © Daniel Sharp)

Recently, you may have noticed your neighborhood parks being taken over by lycra clad people running and jumping with their bikes; or maybe you’ve overheard excited murmurs about brand new cowbells or talk of this years “Crusades.” 

No, this isn’t a religiously sanctioned military campaign for cyclists to take over Portland. This is cyclocross.

If you’re new to ‘cross this year, or if you’re just ‘cross-curious, learn more about this fast-growing sport in the primer below…

Cyclocross — often referred to as just, ‘cross — is an entertaining form of racing for participants and spectators alike. Portland’s cyclocross season runs from late August (yes it’s already started!) to mid-December. Racers usually use ‘cross-specific bikes that resemble a road bike but with frame clearance for debris and mud and wide, knobby tires for traction.

Run-up (or, walk-up in this case).
(Photo © Daniel Sharp)

Races take place on a closed circuit course of 1-2 miles of grass, gravel, mud, snow, sand, pavement, wooded trails—all which afford many of great places to cheer from. At multiple points on the course racers are forced to dismount their bikes and carry them over barriers or climb hills/stairs too steep to ride (referred to as “run-ups”), then re-mount and continue on for the duration of the race, which usually lasts 30 minutes to an hour.

Remember back to when you were a kid racing your friends around the block, add an obstacle course — and in Oregon, mud — then count how many laps you can do in 45 minutes. The racer with the most laps wins, but pretty much everyone has a blast — especially the cheering bystanders shouting words of encouragement and ringing cowbells to urge the racers on.

A Short History

Gabriel Park in Portland and a typical turnout for a race circa 1980s.
(Photo: Michael Sylvester)

Bicycle infantries were heavily employed to carry messages from the front lines to command across European battlefields during WWI. After the war ended, this form of cycling morphed from military tactic to winter off-season training for road racers who were encouraged to cut across farmer’s fields, over fences and through streams to get to their destination.

The sport wasn’t officially recognized by an international racing body until the 1950’s, and it didn’t pick up traction here in Portland until the 1980’s when it slowly began to blossom, with a weekly race regularly held at Pier or Creston Parks. Today our most popular races can have up to 1,500 racers and thousands more spectators. Though the venues have grown to accommodate the masses, the views offered are beautiful and pastoral as ever.

Finding Cyclocross Racing in Portland

Cross Crusade 2010 #2 - Rainier-45

Kids love ‘cross.
(Photo © J. Maus)

You don’t have to jump right into racing — or even ride a bike — to join in on the fun. Some say spectators have the best races, and for many cyclocross is truly a family affair. All ages are welcome, and ‘cross has become so popular that most races offer opportunities for everyone from toddlers to grandparents to join in (and yes, even race if they want to), including the newly created high school cyclocross program.

Most every venue is like a carnival, complete with fried food, ringing bells and attractions. You’ll find friendly Oregon Bicycle Racing Association (OBRA) volunteers eager to help out newcomers, vendors of Belgian waffles and pommes frites, free oatmeal and coffee, mobile bike shops, bike raffles and fundraisers for local schools and if you’re lucky, free cowbells (also, OBRA sells them!) to help get your cheering on. Sometimes the riders—or spectators—will even be in costume. Mostly you’ll just find wide, mud-smeared grins.

Many of the local races are accessible by Tri-Met, and from October to December you have your pick of races on Wednesday evenings, Saturdays or Sundays. Find a race near you on the OBRA schedule, which lists all races and clinics across the state of Oregon.

Here in the Portland area, we’re very lucky to have a great selection of ‘cross races to choose from. The big Cross Crusade opener is this weekend at Alpenrose Dairy, but there are smaller events too. Check the the Blind Date at the Dairy, a four-week series which takes place on Wednesday nights (starting tonight!).

— Next up in this series… how to get ready for race day!

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13 Comments
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    NW Biker September 28, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    I’m going to go watch and have fun and wish I was young enough and thin enough and fit enough to ride in the mud myself!

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      Jeff TB September 29, 2011 at 8:45 am

      Come out and watch NW Biker! But you may be surprised by the diversity of forms racing cross. Sure there are the super fast people like Tina Brubaker and Clint Culpepper but for everyone of them there are five Ben Davis’ and Phil Avery’s. Real slow and much less fit(!) There are categories for every age and experience level. Try it!

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        Case September 29, 2011 at 10:10 am

        Awesome, thanks for the laugh J-Jo, almost lost my coffee.

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        NW Biker September 29, 2011 at 10:48 am

        I’m very tempted. The funny part is that I recently bought a cyclocross bike! I got it to ride in wet weather, because of the larger tires and disc brakes, which I thought would be better in the rain than my road bike with its skinny tires and rim brakes. What I didn’t count on is how much fun it is to ride! And of course, it’s been perfect in the rain recently.

        So hey, I have the bike…. 🙂

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          Jeff TB September 29, 2011 at 11:01 am

          Give it a try NW Biker! Bet you’ll have a bunch of fun! And you’re probably already faster than Matt Case(!)

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            NW Biker September 29, 2011 at 1:00 pm

            I doubt it! I’m hardly built for speed, but I do love to ride!

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    Ted Buehler September 28, 2011 at 9:58 pm

    Thanks for the info for spectators.

    How about a shift ride out to Alpenrose one of these Wednesday nights? Anyone want to co-lead the ride with me?

    Looks like a 1 hour ride from Col Summers Park, via Terwilliger. Are there better routes that aren’t on a busy curvy street?

    http://maps.google.com/maps?saddr=col+summers+park+portland+or&daddr=alpenrose+dairy+portland+or&hl=en&ll=45.49624,-122.692394&spn=0.089644,0.139046&sll=45.497625,-122.69286&sspn=0.089641,0.139046&geocode=FZODtgIdkI6w-CG6FFqcjM-7gg%3BFRL5tQIdpx2v-CGQDnj1UGwHBCmfXHD8kQuVVDFHUmnEOM4DOw&vpsrc=0&dirflg=b&mra=ltm&t=m&z=13&lci=bike

    Ted Buehler

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    noah September 28, 2011 at 10:41 pm

    Dare I say it… NEEDS MORE COWBELL!

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    Greg September 29, 2011 at 10:54 am

    Jeff TB
    Come out and watch NW Biker! But you may be surprised by the diversity of forms racing cross. Sure there are the super fast people like Tina Brubaker and Clint Culpepper but for everyone of them there are five Ben Davis’ and Phil Avery’s. Real slow and much less fit(!) There are categories for every age and experience level. Try it!
    Recommended 2

    Oooh, snap on Ben!

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    Fat Cobra September 29, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    NW Biker come out, it is alot of fun. Obviously trash talking and a good sense of humor are more important than overall fitness. You’ll meet alot of great people too. I hope to be racing against these jokers until I’m urinating in my depends.

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    Zacho September 29, 2011 at 10:01 pm

    I am very cross-curious and would love some advice. I was thinking of the crusade this sunday or the blind date at the dairy. I am a total noob for sure! Should I just sit out this year take a few beginner clinics, or just dive right in?

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      Jeff TB September 30, 2011 at 8:22 am

      There is plenty of fun for everyone Zacho. Dive right in!

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      Tori Bortman (Contributor) September 30, 2011 at 8:54 am

      I don’t see a problem with jumping right in! Your race will be early in the morning (if you raced Sunday) and I’d plan on hanging out for the rest of the day and watching technique and the races get faster and faster. You’ll definitely pick up a few moves that way.

      We’ll be publishing a piece on what to do on your first race day in the next week, so look out for that, too.

      Good luck!

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